Myths of Intimacy

I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.

There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships?  Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.

One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.

Wheels within wheels . . .

At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.

Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.

To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.

I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.

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F.A.Q.: A Consistent Ethic of Sexuality

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of divorce and cohabitation,
And fornication and . . . “

That’s not how that poem goes. That’s not how that poem goes at all. With apologies to Mr. Carroll, however, that’s how it will go for the purpose of this blog. The time has finally come to address the walrus — er, carpenter — er, elephant — in the room. One question I’m asked pretty regularly is why Christians spend so much time talking about homosexuality to the exclusion of other, seemingly more pervasive sexual sins. So here goes.

Short answer: the pot likes calling the kettle black. The other staple sexual sins — pre-marital sex, pornography, cohabitation, most forms of divorce, and adultery — are so common among churchgoers that pastors are afraid to say anything about them for fear of losing their flocks (and their pulpits). The LGBTQ community, however, is a much safer target, and so energies are diverted to speak out against homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. Such behaviors (NOTE: behaviors, not people) are fairly universally condemned from the pews as well as the pulpit, and so more lay Christians are likely to speak out about them. Instead of uncomfortably discussing our own sins, we say, “Let’s pick on someone who sins differently than we do!”

Again, that’s the short answer. The long answer is, well, longer.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. Under the biblical schema, many things are classified as sexual sin. The catch-all word for sexual immorality is porneia; I’m sure you recognize the root as the same for “pornography.” Porneia is a bit of a legal term in the sense it carries the full weight of the Torah behind it. Anything and everything the law of Moses classified as sexual sin is counted as porneia in the New Testament. Most of those laws are scattered throughout Leviticus, but they’ve largely carried over even in popular conception: incest, fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery, homosexuality, and transvestism (included here in its traditional place). Many people claim Jesus never talked about homosexuality, and he didn’t explicitly, but he did make reference to — and sharply condemn — the categorical porneia, so he really did talk about it.

Back on topic, though, porneia very soundly condemns the “church-approved” sexual sins. The only acceptable sexual behavior in either testament is heterosexual intercourse in the context of the marriage covenant. That pretty much excludes both adultery and fornication straightaway. A common argument in favor of the latter nowadays is “Oh, but we love each other, and we’ve promised to only be with each other.” Great! Put a ring on it. The full level of commitment prerequisite to sex shouldn’t be at all daunting if you’ve already made it as far as all that. Secure God’s blessing on your relationship through holy matrimony and enjoy your marriage bed. But until you do, you’re not married, the two have not become one flesh, and sexual intercourse is still out of bounds for you. (I would say I’m sorry, but I have a rule: never apologize for what the word of God says, even — especially — the hard parts.) So again: any sort of sexual behavior outside of a heterosexual marriage is sin. And some of the violent and demeaning sexual behaviors inside of those parameters are sin, too. But that takes care of two things, then, pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

On to another. Divorce is perhaps the most taboo, most difficult subject to teach on. Jesus actually made my job much harder on this score than both Moses and the rabbis in the time of Christ. I mean, one rabbi actually authorized divorce if your wife ruined your meal while cooking it.

“Darling, I burned the toast . . . “
“Well then I’ll see you in divorce court. Start packing.”

Divorced women at the time had no rights and no property. So when Jesus tightened the regulations governing divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-12, he did a great deal to help women. He greatly reduced the valid reasons for obtaining a divorce — as in the number changed from “infinite” to “one,” namely infidelity. Paul nuances this a bit in 1 Timothy 5:8 (as most take it), saying infidelity also includes a failure to provide (up to and including abandonment by most interpretations). And most interpreters take that provision to include safety, so abuse likewise becomes a valid reason for divorce. That’s it, really: infidelity, abandonment, and abuse. The only three reasons the New Testament gives us for divorce. Anyone divorcing for any other reason and remarries both commits adultery and causes the other ex-spouse to do so as well.

This is a hard saying.

Now add the fact lust is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-30) and you have even bigger problems.

Let’s kick it up another notch (BAM!), a notch brought to you by 20th-Century technology and 21st-Century demand: pornography. There is nothing redemptive about porn; there’s nothing anyone can say to make it less evil. As the saying goes, the only difference between pornography and prostitution is the camera. Both are paying people for sex, yet we only really consider one of them to be evil; why? How? Add to that fundamental thought the aforementioned sinful status of lust. Now consider the rise in demand for violent pornography. Now think about its connection to sex trafficking. And don’t forget the way it warps views of sex, women’s bodies, men’s bodies, women’s personhood, men’s personhood, and everything else it falsely portrays. After all, porn is a lie. Now let’s mention the addiction, the porn-induced sexual dysfunction, the shame and guilt and . . . Finally getting the picture? One last thing, then: if fornication is wrong, and porn requires fornication, then at its most basic, it’s simply a recording of sin. If your spouse asks to watch it together, remember: it will only hurt in the bedroom, never help. I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: there is nothing redemptive about porn.

There. A consistent sexual ethic to cover sexual immorality in all its various guises, inside the church and out. I realize some of you are pondering the topics of polygamy and levirate marriage in Scripture, thinking they’re permissible by the biblical “meta-ethic.” Short answer: no. Longer answer: apples and oranges. Longest answer: that’s another blog for another day.

Let’s be good to each other, folks. Speak these truths in love. The sin is not the person; the sin is a mistake the person made. Love that person with all you are — just as the Lord loves you.